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Wednesday, 23 January 2013

What next for smartphones?


I've had a busy week answering questions about what direction is the smartphone industry heading in with the release of Blackberry 10 at the end of this month.  After responding to a couple of different requests, I decided to put together a lot of my thoughts that I'd shared individually into one document that would probably express better my sentiments in case I missed out on something when asked about the introduction of Blackberry 10.

To talk about Blackberry 10 though, I also need to cover the other bases and talk about where I see the other smartphone platforms heading in at the moment.

Apple

In the case of Apple, in our region they have not ever really had more than one device available at a time.  This device has been priced higher than most other devices and targets primarily the top end of the market.  Apple has traditionally had the biggest App and game offering via their App Store when compared to other platforms.  In the last couple of months, Apple broadened their offering by introducing films and music in the UAE iTunes Store.  For now, this includes English, Arabic and even some Bollywood content but I wouldn't be surprised to see other languages that the UAE embraces to be covered over the period.
A screenshot of the UAE iTunes Store.

Apple's advantage till date has been that much of this content can be ported onto tablets or iPod type devices.  No other platform is as well integrated at the moment, though Microsoft is moving in this direction with Windows 8.  

There has been speculation on whether Apple may have to rethink whether they need to adopt a differentiated approach if they want to get the customer that can spend between Dhs 1,000 - Dhs 2,000.  At the moment, the approach from Apple has been that they don't target the low end but with other brands active in the lower priced price brackets, could Apple be forced to offer another device?  Only time will tell.


Android

Android and Samsung became synonymous in 2012.  Prior to 2012, HTC could've probably claimed to have been the King of the Hill as far as Android adoption went but starting with Samsung's Galaxy series, the balance of power in the Android world started to shift in Samsung's favour.

Android has gained market share faster than any other platform in 2012 but apart from flagship products like the Samsung Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2, Android as an operating system has capitalized from a basket of products that brands like Samsung have been able to offer.  For example, you can find Samsung products running on Android in the sub Dhs 500 price bracket as well those in the priced at over Dhs 2,000.  Samsung has also been able to differentiate itself due to products such as those with dual SIM cards which aren't available on other smartphone platforms.  Android has a slew of Apps available in the Google Play store and by default all tablets at the low end of the market run on Android.  There are a few flagship devices on Android like Samsung's Galaxy Tab or Google's Nexus series but the lion's share of the market on Android tablets has been eaten up by the OEM brands.  With the pricing strategy and suite of products that brands like Samsung maintains, Android as an operating system should continue to prosper in 2013.


Windows Phone 8

If the Android battle is all about Samsung, then the battle for Windows Phone 8, is all about Nokia.

For Nokia, it's all an upside for them as they move into a more level playing field with the Windows Phone 8 powered Lumia devices.  Till now Nokia, who once led the smartphone race with their Nokia Communicator series, found themselves left behind as most brands innovated on operating systems and user experiences like that seen in Apple's iPhone.  Microsoft has thrown their muscle into learning from the mistakes that others like Palm made when trying to compete with Apple and are reliant on Nokia's core distribution and product reliability to gain market share.  The Lumia 920 is a complete smartphone and there is very little that you don't find on it.  No other device actually quite compares with the Lumia 920 at this stage. What Nokia is also doing right is building up a portfolio of devices like Samsung did so we have seen this month for example the introduction of the Lumia 620 which is priced at Dhs 899 that goes after the mass market consumer.  Nokia still has their Asha series of Symbian based smartphones at the very low end and this could be a base that potentially buys a Lumia one day.  
The Lumia 620, on sale now for Dhs. 899

The App universe on Windows Phone 8 should also continue to grow as Microsoft has ensured they get most available on that platform.  The advantage that brands like Nokia will eventually end up enjoying is that most laptop or PC devices will end up running on Windows 8.  Even though the adoption rates may seem relatively slow, there will be little choice for most consumers as apart from Mac OS (which most consumers won't be in a position to afford), there is no other operating system for them to use.  This means that the App portfolio that Microsoft will have on the Windows 8 platform will grow exponentially during 2013 and 2014 to the point that  many App developers may not find it as much of a stretch to develop an App for Windows Phone 8 as well.  The only question is will they update Apps on Windows Phone 8 as often as they do on iOS or Android.

Nokia should grow in 2013 with Windows Phone 8 as there are still many more chinks in their armour and we can expect another flagship device from Nokia to replace the Lumia 920 some time during 2013.


Blackberry

Blackberry is in for the fight of its life in 2013.  

A much needed overhaul of the operating system should see them come with an offering that at the very least puts them on par with other operating systems.  It remains to be seen how keen the developer community is to design Apps for the new platform and update it as often as they do for Android and iOS.  

Many Blackberry users have been patiently waiting for a new device from RIM and most had tolerated with the previous versions of Blackberry because of attractive data plans and Apps like Blackberry Messenger.  

Over the past 18 months though since RIM introduced the Bold 9900 was introduced, other messaging Apps like WhatsApp have soared in popularity so if Blackberry 10 has to be successful, it will have to be about more than just BBM.  During this 18 month period as well, we've seen Apple introduce the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 while Samsung has introduced the Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note and Galaxy Note II.
This is NOT the new BlackBerry 10 device, just a device
given to developers before the launch that had some
elements of BlackBerry 10.

Blackberry is also moving onto a new set of handsets which are largely touchscreen based where they've struggled till now.  They have promised a much better experience with the new devices which they've thus far seems to be focused on their social hub, improved touch keyboard experience and camera App.  RIM has recognized the battle for Blackberry 10 will not be won on the enterprise circuit but on the consumer battlefield so they've had to focus on the end consumer experience more than they've ever done on any other launch till date.

The other core strength RIM had till date was a broad range of products with prices ranging from Dhs 599 upwards.  The flagship models which are priced at over Dhs 2,000 will be on BB10 but the overall success of the platform will hinge on how quick the rest of the platform moves onto this platform.  RIM has a large base on Blackberry devices in the UAE that will potentially move to Blackberry 10 devices, which is a luxury they don't have in most other parts of the world.  In many of these users also today have a second smartphone so the benchmark for many of them will be firstly how BB10 compares to the previous version of Blackberry devices and secondly how it stacks up as compared to the Apple, Android or Windows Phone 8 device that many of these same consumers already own. 

Concluding Thoughts...

2013 will be a a bloody battle for smartphone vendors and operating systems.  This could be the year we see stalwarts in the smartphone industry marginalized or even worse, eliminated.  This could also be the year we see the balance of power start to shift again as smartphone operating systems lock horns.  Apple and Blackberry have potentially got the most to lose in this case if the other operating systems manage to innovate more.  This could also be the year we start to see hardware brands from the Far East emerge stronger with the likes of Huawei, ZTE and Asus showing that they are amongst the innovative players in the industry at the moment.

With RIM about the unveil Blackberry 10 in a few days and others set to make announcements of their own at Mobile World Congress in February, we'll have to see how many shifts in power happen this year.  The fact is there probably is space for only three smartphone platforms and one will have to give way eventually.  Which one it is that disappears is hard to say but rest assured, Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM won't be resting on their laurels this year.

Posted by: Ashish Panjabi, Chief Operating Officer, Jacky's Electronics LLC